Waratah & Thistle: Angus & Robertson Symposium

One of the most exciting aspects of the FBTEE project has been watching other book trade archives being opened up for further study. Yesterday at the State Library of New South Wales we had the opportunity to see how our partner project, ARCHivER is contributing to the opening up of research on the Angus and Robertson archives, which are held by the library. Co-convened by FBTEE chief investigator, Dr Jason Ensor, and held in partnership with the Western Sydney University Digital Humanities Research Group, the Angus and Robertson symposium brought together several generations of Australian book historians, library professionals, senior Angus and Robertson executives  (including Richard Walsh) and friends of the library. The event showcased both the importance of the archives and the firm for understanding Australian literature and culture during the twentieth century, when it was a dominant force in Australian publishing and bookselling, and the progress being made towards revealing further treasures within the archive. These include the efforts of expert cataloguers (led by Ann Peck, who gave a magisterial overview of the archive) and academics, including Dr Jason Ensor and Dr Helen Bones, who introduced their work on the ARCHivER project, which will tag and apply linked data principles to a significant sub-set of digitized Angus and Robertson papers. Dr Bones published some reflections on this work for the State Library’s blog ahead of the symposium, available here.

In addition to the materials held at the SLNSW, we got to see for the first time images of some of the material recently discovered by FBTEE researchers Professor Simon Burrows (author of this post) and Dr Katie McDonough in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, which holds an extensive collection of Angus and Robertson book catalogues spanning many decades. Many of these catalogues appear not to be available among the estimated 900,000+ documents in the SLNSW, and as Dr Jason Ensor showed in his presentation, they contain valuable insights into how the firm positioned itself internationally. The global significance of Angus and Robertson’s trade was a repeated theme: Helen Bones spoke informatively about the firm’s trans-Tasman trade in her discussion of the uses of ARCHivER; Jason himself discussed their trading of books and rights through the London office and at the Frankfurt book fairs; and Angus & Robertson veteran John Ferguson, who was the subject of many of Jason’s remarks concerning London and Frankfurt, was very gracious in giving Jason’s interpretation a thumbs’ up and ‘spot on’.

Equally, the archive now contains extensive newly digitized interview material deposited by Dr Neil James, who created them during meetings with company employees and executives during his oral history researches on the company. In a thoughtful keynote address, Dr James discussed some of the valuable new lines of enquiry for future research into the Angus and Robertson archives. Among areas he highlighted were the graphic history revealed by the thousands of dust-jackets and illustrations in the archive, some of them created by leading artists and designers such as Norman Lindsay and forgotten authors. One such author was Zora Cross, the subject of a presentation by Cathy Perkins, whose daring Songs of Love and Life broke taboos concerning women writers discussing sex and was a publishing sensation in 1917 and accompanied many Anzac troops on campaign.

Angus and Robertson has always been known for its role in curating a sense of Australian culture, both through the literature it published and its iconic Australian publishing projects including The Australian Encyclopaedia, Neville Cayley’s lavishly illustrated What Bird is That? or Charles Bean’s multi-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Charles Bean’s history was one of the case studies Professor  Christopher Lee used to explore the company’s conscious role in creating a sense of Australian identity in the early twentieth century and around world war one. His other case study was Henry Lawson, whose relationship with the company was so close that the archive still contains one of his pencils and his mother’s wedding ring!

The symposium also addressed many of the formidable characters who shaped the history of the firm: in a particularly illuminating paper Jacqueline Kent discussed the role in shaping Australia’s literary culture of Beatrice Davis, chief editor ‘and arbiter of literary taste’ at Angus and Robertson from 1937 to 1973. We also heard from Dr Craig Munro and Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley of the ultimately unsuccessful but highly profitable attempts of Australian press baron Sir Frank Packer to buy the company in the 1960s.

The organisers and convenors of this symposium, which attracted over 50 delegates, are to be congratulated on a uniformly high quality event, from the “Welcome to Country” by Uncle Ray and opening remarks by Mitchell librarian Richard Neville and Dr Jason Ensor, through to a vigorous closing panel chaired by the State Library’s Rachel Franks. My clear impression is that the Angus and Robertson archive is being opened up in ways that will enable many of its secrets to continue to be revealed across coming decades, and that Australian book history is in rude health ahead of the international SHARP 2018 conference – which is to be held in Sydney at Western Sydney University, Parramatta, and the State Library, 26-29 June. Both Dr James and Dr Ensor emphasized that the time is ripe for a new synthesis of the history of Angus and Robertson and its significance to the cultural, business, social and literary history of Australia and the wider world. It will be, as evidenced by the Waratah and Thistle symposium, an exciting and many-faceted tale.

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